Monday, May 23, 2011

James Gleick on Information

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood; by James GleickGreetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where author, James Gleick, is talking about his new book "The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood".

Mr. Gleick told an anecdote about Zick Rubin having difficulty convincing the authors of a wiki that he was alive. The authors had a printed book which said he was dead, which was more convincing than the living person.

Mr. Gleick then mentioned Shannon's paper "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" (1948) which provided a theory of information. He pointed out that Shannon in his youth produced a "barbed wire" communications network.

It now seems obvious that electrical and optical systems carry information, which has a separate existence from the electromagnetic forms of energy used to convey it. But this was an idea which needed to be developed.

Mr. Gleick's gift is to make esoteric theoretical ideas, first chaos theory and now information theory, accessible to a wider audience. Unlike "A Brief History of Time", where Stephen Hawking tries to explain advanced physics (and fails), James Gleick mostly succeeds. His success may be due to the same advice Cameron Chamberlain gave in his Introduction to Animation last week: make it about something alive, with a personality. Facts about things are boring, but stories about people doing things are interesting.

It is important to realise that great inventions do not spring inevitably from accumulations of information. It takes people with passion. It is curious and informative that information is fundamental to life.

At question time one of the audience asked about a quote attributed to an Australian, envisaging an online computer database linked by telecommunications in 1948. Mr. Gleick said he doubted that this was said in 1948. I recalled something like this attributed to Australian computer pioneer, Trevor Pearcey. It took me a few minutes searching to find the reference:
“in the non-mathematical field there is scope for the use of the [computing] techniques in such things as filing systems. It is not inconceivable that an automatic encyclopaedic service operated through the national teleprinter or telephone service will one day exist.”
This is attributed to "Pearcey, T.: Modern Trends in Machine Computation. Aust. J. Science X/4 Supp. (1948) in John Deane's paper "Connections in the History of Australian Computing", in "History of Computing: Learning from the Past: IFIP WG 9.7", (International Federation for Information Processing, 2010). It turns out that these are the proceedings from a conference at the World Computer Congress 2010, I attended in Brisbane, last year.

James Gleick is also speaking 24 May at the Brisbane Irish Club.

ps: The Australian Information Commissioner, Professor John McMillan, will be launching a new set of "Principles on Open Public Sector Information", at Meta 2011, ANU University House, 25 May 2011.

1 comment:

Tom Worthington said...

Found a copy of "Modern Trends in Machine Computation" by Trevor Pearcey (in Supplement to the Australian Journal of Science,Volume X Number 4). This does discuss the use of digital electronic computers for building an information service linked over a national telecommunications network:

"In the non-mathematical field there is a wide scope for the use of the techniques in such things as filing systems. It is not inconceivable that an automatic encyclopaedic service operated through the national teleprinter, or telephone system, will one day exist."